He set down the shopping bag and put away his purchases in the tiny refrigerator. The ice cream, her favorite flavor of Häagen-Dazs, had almost melted, but he knew that was exactly the way she liked it, so creamy and rich with the crunchy bits of cookies. It had been weeks since he’d seen her. Although it was hard for him, he never pressured her. He knew he really shouldn’t rush her; he had to be patient. She had to want to come to him on her own. Yesterday, she had finally gotten in touch, sending a text message. And soon she would be here. The anticipation made his heart beat faster.
He looked around the trailer, which he’d given a good cleaning the night before. He glanced at the clock over the narrow kitchen counter. Already twenty past six. He had to hurry, because he didn’t want her to see him like this, all sweaty and unshaven. After work, he’d stopped at the barbershop for a quick trim, but the rancid smell of the lunch stand still clung to every pore. He tore off his clothes, which were reeking of sweat and deep-fry oil, stuffed them into the empty shopping bag, and jumped into the mini-shower next to the kitchen. Even though it was cramped and the water pressure was low, he preferred the confines of his trailer to the unhygienic public bathrooms at the trailer park, which weren’t cleaned very often.
He soaped up from head to toe, shaved carefully, and then brushed his teeth. Sometimes he had to force himself to do these things because it was so tempting to let himself go and sink into self-pity and lethargy. Maybe that’s what would have happened if she hadn’t been around.
A couple of minutes later, he slipped into fresh underwear and a clean polo shirt, then took a pair of jeans out of the dresser. Finally, he strapped his watch to his wrist. A couple of months ago, a pawnbroker at the train station had offered him 150 euros for it—an outrageously paltry sum, considering that thirteen years ago he’d paid eleven thousand D-marks for this masterpiece from a Swiss watch company. He was keeping this watch. It was the last reminder of his former life. One more look in the mirror and then he opened the door and stepped out of the trailer.
His heart skipped a beat when he saw her sitting outside on the rickety garden chair. He’d been looking forward to this moment for days and weeks. He stood there, allowing the sight of her to sink in completely.
How beautiful she was, how tender and delicate! A sweet little angel with soft blond hair falling over her shoulders; he knew what it felt like and how it smelled. She was wearing a sleeveless dress that revealed her lightly tanned skin and the fragile vertebrae of her neck. She had a rapt expression on her face as she busily thumbed a text on her cell phone, and she didn’t notice him. He didn’t want to frighten her, so he cleared his throat. She looked up and her eyes met his. Her smile began at the corners of her mouth and then spread over her whole face. She jumped to her feet.
He had to swallow hard as she came over and stopped right in front of him. The look of trust in her dark eyes gave his heart a pang. Good God, how sweet she was! She was the only reason why he hadn’t thrown himself in front of a train long ago, or in some other affordable way had put a premature end to his miserable life.
“Hello, sweetie,” he said hoarsely, putting his hand on her shoulder— only briefly. Her skin felt silky and warm. At first, he always felt shy about touching her.
“Where did you tell your mother you were going?”
“She and my stepdad went to some party tonight, at the firehouse, I think,” she replied, sticking her cell into her red backpack. “I told her I was going to Jessie’s place.”
With a glance, he made sure that no curious neighbor or chance passerby was watching them. He was tingling inside with excitement, and his knees felt weak.
“I bought you your favorite ice cream,” he said softly. “Shall we go inside?”
Thursday, June 10, 2010
She felt like she was tipping over backward. As soon as she opened her eyes, everything started spinning around. And she felt sick. No, not sick; she felt ghastly. She could smell the vomit. Alina groaned and tried to raise her head. Where was she? What had happened, and where was everybody else?
They had all been sitting together under the tree, Mart beside her, with his arm around her shoulders. It felt good. She laughed, and he kissed her. Katharina and Mia kept on complaining about the mosquitoes, and they’d been drinking this sweet stuff—vodka and Red Bull.
Alina sat up with an effort. Her head was pounding. She opened her eyes and was shocked to see the sun was about to set. How late was it anyway? And where was her cell phone? She couldn’t remember how she’d gotten here, or where exactly she was. The past few hours were a blank, a total blackout.
“Mart? Mia? Where are you?”
She crawled over to the trunk of the huge weeping willow. It took all her strength to get to her feet and look around. Her knees felt as soft as butter, everything was spinning around her, and she couldn’t see clearly. She’d probably lost her contact lenses when she was throwing up. And she’d certainly done a lot of that. The taste in her mouth was disgusting, and she could feel vomit on her face. The dry leaves crackled under her bare feet. She looked down. Her shoes were gone, too.
“Shit, shit, shit,” she muttered, fighting to hold back the tears. She was going to be in big trouble if she showed up at home looking like this.
From a distance, she could hear voices and laughter drifting toward her, along with the aroma of grilled meat, which made her feel even more nauseated. At least she hadn’t landed somewhere out in the boonies; there were other people close by.
Alina let go of the tree trunk and took a couple of tentative steps. Everything around her was spinning round like a carousel, but she forced herself to keep walking. What a bunch of assholes they all were. Some friends! They’d just let her lie here drunk, with no shoes and no phone. Maybe fat Katharina and that stupid cow Mia were having a good laugh at her expense. She was really going to let them have it when she saw them tomorrow at school. And she would never speak to Mart again in her life.
At that moment, Alina happened to look at the steep bank leading down to the river and stopped short. There was somebody lying down there, in the stinging nettles, right next to the water. Dark hair, a yellow T-shirt— it was Alex. Damn, how had he gotten down there? What had happened? Cursing, Alina made her way down the bank. The nettles stung her bare calves, and she stepped on something sharp.
“Alex!” She squatted down next to him and shook his shoulder. He stank of vomit, too, and was groaning softly. “Hey, wake up!”
She waved away the mosquitoes that kept buzzing around her face. “Alex! Wake up! Come on!” She tugged on his legs, but he was as heavy as lead and didn’t budge.
On the river, a motorboat passed by. The wake sloshed up on shore, making the water gurgle in the reeds and lap against Alex’s legs. Alina gasped in terror. Right in front of her eyes, a pale hand emerged from the water and seemed to reach out for her.
She recoiled and uttered a frightened cry. Among the reeds—not six feet away from Alex—Mia was lying in the water. Alina thought she could see her face just below the surface. In the diffuse half-light of dusk, she could see long blond hair and wide-open, dead eyes that seemed to be looking straight at her.
As if paralyzed, Alina stared at the gruesome sight, her mind reeling in confusion. What the hell had happened here? Another wave rolled in, Mia’s body moved, and her arm stuck out of the dark water as pale as a ghost, as if she were begging for help.
Alina was shaking all over, even though it was still intolerably hot. Her stomach rebelled, and she staggered, turning around to throw up in the nettles. But instead of vodka and Red Bull, only bitter gall came up. Sobbing desperately, she crawled up the steep bank on all fours, scratching her hands and knees on the stubbled slope. Oh, if only she were home in her room, in bed, safe and sound! All she wanted was to get away from this horrible place and forget everything she’d seen.
Pia Kirchhoff was typing into her PC the final report on the investigation into the death of Veronika Meissner. Since early morning, the sun had been baking the flat roof of the building where the offices of Kommissariat 11 of the Criminal Police were located, and the readout on the digital weather station sitting on the windowsill next to Kai Ostermann’s desk showed it was eighty-eight degrees. Room temperature. Outside, it was probably a good five degrees hotter. Schools had canceled lessons because of the heat. Although the doors and windows were open wide, there was no hint of a breeze to bring any relief. Pia’s forearm stuck to the desktop as soon as she leaned on it. She sighed and pressed print, then added the report to the slim folder. All that was missing was the autopsy report, but where had she put it? Pia got up and searched through her out-box, eager to be done with this case at last. Since yesterday, she’d been holding down the fort alone at K-11. Her colleague Kai Ostermann, with whom she shared the office, was attending a course at the National Criminal Police office in Wiesbaden. Kathrin Fachinger and Cem Altunay were taking part in a nationwide seminar in Düsseldorf, and the boss had been on vacation since Monday at an undisclosed location. Commissioner Nicola Engel had granted Pia some time off when she was promoted to detective superintendent, but that, too, had fallen by the wayside because the department was so short-staffed. Pia didn’t really mind. She hated for anyone to make a fuss over her; the change in her rank was no more than an administrative formality.
“So where’s that damn report?” she muttered in annoyance. It was almost five already, and she was planning to go to her class reunion in Königstein at seven. The construction work they were doing on her farmhouse, the Birkenhof, often left her no time for any social life, but she was looking forward to seeing the girls from her old school after twenty-five years.
A knock at her open door made her spin around. “Hello, Pia.”
Pia couldn’t believe her eyes. It was her former colleague Frank Behnke, but he was totally transformed. He had changed his usual look—jeans, T-shirt, and worn cowboy boots—for a light gray suit with shirt and tie. He wore his hair a little longer than before, and his face no longer looked as haggard, which was an improvement.
“Hello, Frank,” she replied, amazed. “Long time no see.”
“But you did recognize me,” he said with a grin, shoving his hands into his pants pockets and giving her the once-over. “You’re looking good. I heard you stumbled up another rung of the career ladder. I suppose you’ll be taking over from the old man soon, eh?”
As always, Frank Behnke lost no time pushing her buttons, and he did it effortlessly. Her polite query as to how things were going for him stuck in her throat.
“I didn’t ‘stumble up’ the career ladder, no way. My rank was changed, that’s all,” she responded coolly. “And to whom are you referring as ‘the old man’? You mean Bodenstein?”
Behnke just shrugged it off with a grin and kept on chewing his gum. That was one thing he hadn’t managed to give up.
After his inglorious departure from K-11 two years earlier, he’d lodged a complaint about his suspension and been lucky enough to be reinstated. At any rate, he’d been transferred to the National Criminal Police office in Wiesbaden, and nobody at the Regional Criminal Unit in Hofheim had been sorry to see him go.
He slipped past her and sat down in Ostermann’s chair. “Everybody flew the coop, I see.”
Pia muttered to herself as she kept on looking for that autopsy report. “To what do I owe the honor of this visit?” she then asked.
Behnke clasped his hands behind his head.
“Well, what a shame that you’re the only one here I can share my happy news with,” he said. “But the others will find out soon enough.”
“What is it?” Pia gave him a suspicious look.
“I got fed up with working the streets. I’ve done that shit long enough,” he replied without taking his eyes off her. “The Special Assignment Unit, K-11, all that’s behind me now. I always got the best evaluations, so they forgave me my minor indiscretion.”
Minor indiscretion! Behnke had punched their colleague Kathrin Fachinger in a fit of uncontrolled rage and committed enough other transgressions to warrant a suspension.
“I was having personal problems back then,” he went on. “That was taken into account. At the State Police office, I passed a couple of additional qualifications, and now I’m at K-134, the Office of Internal Affairs, responsible for investigating and bringing charges against police personnel and preventing corruption.”
Pia couldn’t believe her ears. Frank Behnke as an Internal Affairs investigator? That was utterly absurd.
“Along with my colleagues from the other federal states, in the past few months we’ve developed a strategic concept that will go into effect on July first nationwide. Improvement of services and professional oversight within subordinate departments, sensitivity training for personnel, and so on. . . .” He crossed one leg over the other and jiggled his foot. “Dr. Engel is a competent manager, but occasionally we get reports from the individual investigative offices about transgressions committed by colleagues. I can vividly recall certain incidents in this very office that were quite disturbing: failure to administer punishments in the office, not following up on misdemeanors, unauthorized IT queries, passing internal documents to third parties . . . just to mention a few examples.”
Pia abruptly stopped searching for the autopsy report. “What are you getting at?”
Behnke’s smile turned malicious, and his eyes took on an unpleasant glint. Pia had a bad feeling about all this. As always, he was enjoying demonstrating his superiority and power with regard to his opponent, a character trait of his that she despised. As a colleague, with his envy and perpetually rotten temper, Behnke had been a veritable torment, but as a representative of internal investigations, he could be a disaster.
“You, of all people, should know best.” He stood up and came around the desk to stand close to her. “But you’re the obvious favorite of the old man.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Pia replied icily.
“Oh, don’t you? Really?” Behnke moved so close that it made her uncomfortable, but she resisted the urge to step back. “Starting Monday, I’m going to start an authorized internal investigation in this building, and I probably won’t have to dig very deep to bring a few corpses to light.”
Pia was shivering despite the tropical heat in the office, but she remained outwardly calm, even though she was boiling inside; she even managed to smile. Frank Behnke was an unforgiving and petty person who forgot nothing. Old frustrations were still eating at him and seemed to have multiplied tenfold in recent years. And he was contemplating revenge for the injustice and humiliation he imagined he’d suffered. It wouldn’t be smart to make an enemy of him, but Pia’s anger was stronger than her good sense.
“Well then,” she said sarcastically, resuming her search. “I wish you much success in your new job as . . . a cadaver dog.”
Behnke turned to go.
“Your name isn’t on my list yet. But that could change at any time. Have a nice weekend.”
Pia didn’t react to the unambiguous threat his words implied. She waited until he was gone, then grabbed her cell and punched the hot key for Bodenstein. The call went through, but nobody picked up. Damn. She was sure that her boss hadn’t the slightest idea what a nasty surprise was waiting for him here. She knew pretty much what Behnke was insinuating. And it could have very unpleasant consequences for Oliver von Bodenstein.
The deposit on three returnable bottles was enough for a pack of noodles. Five more would buy veggies to go with it. That was the currency he dealt in these days.
Before, in his former life, he hadn’t paid any attention to collecting the deposit, but had blithely tossed empty bottles into trash cans. That was exactly the sort of person who ensured his basic needs today. He’d received twelve and a half euros from the kiosk owner for the two bags of empty bottles. He got paid six euros an hour under the table by the greedy cheapskate for standing all day in this tin box at the edge of an industrial zone in Fechenheim, grilling hot dogs and burgers and deep-frying potatoes. If the cash register didn’t add up perfectly, the amount was docked from his pay. Today, everything had come out even, and he hadn’t had to beg for his money like he usually did. Fatso was in a good mood and had paid him what he was owed for the past five days.
Combined with the money from collecting bottles, he had about three hundred euros in his wallet: a small fortune. That was why, feeling suddenly flush, he’d splurged not only on a haircut but also a shave from the Turkish barber across from the train station. After a visit to Aldi, he had enough left to pay the rent on his trailer space for two months in advance.
He parked his rickety motor scooter next to the trailer, pulled the helmet off his head, and took the shopping bag out of the carrier.
The heat was driving him crazy. It didn’t even cool off at night. In the morning, he would wake up soaked with sweat. In the miserable lunch stand of thin corrugated iron, it could get up to 140 degrees, and the stifling humidity made the stench of sweat and rancid fat settle in his hair and pores.
The dilapidated trailer in the RV park in Schwanheim was supposed to have been a temporary solution, back when he still believed he could make a go of it and restore his financial situation. But nothing in his life had turned out to be as long-lasting as this temporary arrangement—he’d already been living here for seven years.
He unzipped the awning, which must have been dark green decades ago, before the weather had faded it to a nondescript pale gray. A puff of hot air gusted toward him. Inside the trailer, it was several degrees hotter than outside, with a stifling and stuffy smell. No matter how much he scrubbed and aired out the place, the odors had settled into the upholstery and every nook and cranny. Even after seven years, it still filled him with disgust, but for him there was no other option.
Ever since his plunge into the abyss, and as a convicted criminal, he belonged to the underclass, even among the residents of the slum on the outskirts of the metropolis. Nobody wandered in here on vacation or to admire the glitzy skyline of Frankfurt, the concrete and glass symbols of big money across the river. His neighbors were mostly blamelessly impoverished retirees or failures like himself who had landed on the down escalator. Alcohol often played a leading role in the story of their lives, which were depressingly similar.
As for himself, he drank no more than one beer in the evening, he didn’t smoke, and he paid attention to his weight and grooming. He didn’t bother with the Hartz IV law of 2005, which combined unemployment insurance with social welfare, because he couldn’t stand the thought of having to show up as a supplicant and kowtow to the bigoted whims of indifferent bureaucrats.
A tiny scrap of self-esteem was the last thing he possessed. If he lost that, he might as well kill himself.
A voice outside the awning made him turn around. A man was standing behind the half-desiccated hedge that divided the property of his tiny plot from the neighbor’s.
“What do you want?”
The man came closer, hesitated. His piggy little eyes flicked angrily from left to right.
“Somebody told me you would help anyone who was having trouble with the authorities.” The high-pitched falsetto was a grotesque contrast to the massive figure of the man. Sweat was beading on his balding head, and the smell of garlic overpowered the even less pleasant body odors.
“Oh, really? Who says that?”
“Rosi, from the kiosk. She told me, ‘Go see Doc. He’ll help you.’ ” The sweating hunk of lard glanced around again, as if he was afraid to be seen there. Then he took a roll of bills out of his pocket. Hundreds, even a couple of five hundreds. “I’ll pay you well.”
“Come on in.”
Right off, the guy seemed kind of disagreeable, but that didn’t matter. He couldn’t be picky about his clientele, his address was not in any phone book, and he certainly didn’t have a Web site. Still, there were limits to what he’d do, no matter how much money was offered, and people knew that. With his previous conviction and the probation that was still in force, he couldn’t get involved in anything that might send him back to the slammer. But word on the street was that he’d already helped tavern owners and operators of lunch stands who had come into conflict with official regulations, desperate pensioners who’d been bilked on promotional shopping trips or by door-to-door salesmen, unemployed people or immigrants who couldn’t understand the complex bureaucracy in Germany, and young people who were seduced early by the temptations of a life on credit and had fallen into the debt trap. Anyone who asked for help knew that he worked only for cash.
He had long since gotten over any feelings of sympathy. He was no Robin Hood; he was a mercenary. For cash in advance, he would fill out official forms on the scratched-up Formica table in his trailer, translate complicated bureaucratic German into understandable everyday language, and offer legal advice for any situation in order to augment his income.
“What’s the problem?” he asked his visitor, who cast an appraising glance at the obvious indicators of poverty and seemed to gain confidence.
“Man, it’s sure hot in here. Have you got a beer or a glass of water?” “No.” He made no effort to be friendly.
Long gone were the days of mahogany-veneer conference tables in air-conditioned rooms, trays holding little bottles of water and fruit juice, and glasses arrayed upside down.
With a snort, the fat man pulled out some rolled-up papers from the inside pocket of his greasy leather vest and handed them over. Recycled paper, small print. The tax office.
He unfolded the papers, which were damp with sweat, smoothed them out, and scanned the text.
“Three hundred,” he demanded without looking up. Rolls of cash stuffed in pants pockets always signified illegal earnings. The sweaty fat man could afford to pay a bit more than the usual rate he charged seniors and the unemployed.
“What?” the new client protested, as anticipated. “For a few pages?”
“If you can find someone to do it cheaper, be my guest.”
The fat man muttered something unintelligible, then reluctantly peeled off three banknotes and laid them on the table.
“Do I at least get a receipt?”
“Sure. My secretary will make it out later and give it to your chauffeur,” he replied. “Now have a seat. I’ll need some information from you.”
Traffic was backed up at Baseler Platz leading to the Friedensbrücke. For a couple of weeks now, the city had been one big construction zone, and Hanna was annoyed that she’d forgotten all about that and driven into downtown instead of taking the route via the Frankfurter Kreuz and Niederrad to Sachsenhausen. As she drove along at a snail’s pace behind a bunch of rusty pickup trucks with Lithuanian license plates crossing the bridge over the Main River, Hanna replayed the unsatisfying conversation with Norman that morning. She was still pissed off about his stupidity and his lies. It had been hard for her to fire him with no notice after eleven years, but he’d left her no choice. Before he stomped off in a huff, he’d fired off a series of nasty curses and issued several vile threats.
Hanna’s smartphone hummed, and she grabbed it and opened her mail app. Her assistant had sent her an e-mail. The header said “Catastrophe!!!” Instead of a message, there was a link to FOCUS online. Hanna clicked the link with her thumb, and her stomach lurched when she read the headline.
Hanna Heartless, it said in bold letters, and beside it was a rather unflattering photo of her. Her pulse began to race and she felt her right hand trembling uncontrollably. She gripped her phone harder.
All she cares about is profit. The guests on her TV show have to sign a nondisclosure agreement before they’re allowed to speak. And whatever they say is scripted in advance by Hanna Herzmann, 46. Bricklayer Armin V., 52, wanted to speak during the show about his hassle with his landlord (the topic was “My Landlord Wants to Evict Me”), but with the cameras rolling, he was labeled a transient renter by the moderator. When he protested after the broadcast, he discovered another side of the supposedly sympathetic Hanna Herzmann, and of her lawyer. Now Armin V. is unemployed and homeless after his landlord finally succeeded in evicting him. Something similar happened to Bettina B., 34. The single mother was a guest on Hanna Herzmann’s program in January (topic: “When Fathers Hit the Road”). Contrary to preliminary arrangements, Bettina B. was portrayed as an overtaxed mother and alcoholic. For her, too, the broadcast had unpleasant consequences: She received a visit from Child Welfare.
“Shit,” Hanna muttered. Once something was on the Internet, it was impossible to delete. She bit her lip and thought hard.
Unfortunately, the article was close to the truth. Hanna had a real knack for finding interesting topics, and she wasn’t afraid to ask embarrassing questions and stir up dirt. In doing so, she basically couldn’t care less about the people and their often tragic fates. She secretly had nothing but contempt for most of them and their urge to bare all in return for fifteen minutes of fame. Hanna managed to coax the most intimate secrets out of people in front of the camera, and she was a master at pretending to be sympathetic and interested.
Besides, the true story was often insufficient, so a little dramatization was necessary. And that had been Norman’s job. He had cynically called the show Pimp My Boring Life and was happy to distort reality, regardless of how painful it might prove to be. Whether that was morally acceptable or not wasn’t Hanna’s concern; in the end, the show’s success in the ratings validated his tactics. Of course, the letters of complaint from disgruntled guests filled several file folders. They often didn’t understand until later, when they were subjected to public mockery, what sort of embarrassing things they’d said in front of a television audience. As a matter of fact, complaints arose only seldom, and that was due to the polished, absolutely airtight legal contracts that each person who wanted to speak on her broadcast had to sign in advance.
A car honked behind her, startling Hanna out of her reverie. The traffic was moving again. She raised her hand in apology and stepped on the gas. Ten minutes later, she turned down Hedderichstrasse and then into the back courtyard of the building where her company was located. She put her smartphone in her shoulder bag and stepped out of the car. In the city, it was always several degrees warmer than out in the Taunus region; the heat built up between the buildings until it felt like a sauna. Hanna fled into the air-conditioned foyer and stepped into an elevator. On the way to the sixth floor, she leaned against the cool wall and took a critical look at herself in the mirrored surface.
In the first weeks after her breakup with Vinzenz, she had looked terribly harried and exhausted, and the girls in Makeup had had to muster all their professional skill to make her look the way the television viewers expected. But now Hanna found her appearance quite passable, at least in the dim light of the elevator. She’d colored her hair to cover the first silver strands, not out of vanity, but from a sheer instinct for self-preservation. The TV business was unforgiving: men could have gray hair, but for women, that would mean eventual banishment to the afternoon cultural and cooking shows.
Hanna had hardly stepped out of the elevator on the sixth floor when Jan Niemöller appeared out of nowhere. In spite of the tropical weather outdoors, the manager of Herzmann Productions was wearing a black shirt, black jeans, and even a scarf around his neck.
“All hell has broken loose!” Niemöller trotted along beside her excitedly, waving his skinny arms. “The phones are ringing off the hook, and nobody can reach you. And how come I have to hear from Norman that you fired him with no notice? Why didn’t you tell me? First you give Julia the boot, now Norman—who do you think is going to do the work?”
“Meike is going to fill in for Julia during the summer; that’s already been set up. And we’re going to be working with an independent producer.”
“And you don’t even ask me about it?” Hanna looked Niemöller up and down.
“Hiring and firing is my job. I took you on to deal with the business stuff so I wouldn’t have to worry about it.”
“Oh, so that’s how you see it?” He was insulted, of course.
Hanna knew that Jan Niemöller was secretly in love with her, or, rather, with all the glory surrounding her, which also spilled over onto him as her associate. But she viewed him solely as a business partner—as a man, he was not her type. Besides, he’d been acting so possessive lately that she needed to put him in his place.
“That’s not just the way I see it; that’s the way it is,” she said with a tad more coolness. “I appreciate your opinion, but I’m the one making the decisions.”
Niemöller opened his mouth to protest, but Hanna cut him off with a wave of her hand.
“The network hates this sort of publicity. We’re no longer in a very strong position. With the shitty ratings in recent months, I had no choice but to kick Norman out. If they take us off the air, all of you can go scrambling for another job. Do you get it?”
Irina Zydek, Hanna’s assistant, appeared in the hallway.
“Hanna, Matern has called you three times. And almost every newspaper and TV news desk, except for Al Jazeera.” Her voice had an anxious undertone.
The rest of the staff appeared in the doorways of their offices, and their concern was palpable. The news had obviously gotten around that she’d fired Norman without notice.
“We’re meeting in half an hour in the conference room,” Hanna said as she walked by. First, she had to call Wolfgang Matern back. She couldn’t afford any trouble with the network at the moment.
She stepped into her office at the end of the corridor; it was flooded with light. She dropped her shoulder bag on one of the visitors’ chairs and sat down behind her desk. As her computer booted up, she leafed quickly through the callback messages that Irina had written on yellow Post-its, then picked up the phone. She never liked to put off unpleasant tasks for long. She hit the speed-dial number for Wolfgang Matern and took a deep breath. He picked up in a matter of seconds.
“It’s Hanna Heartless,” she said.
“Good to hear you’ve still got a sense of humor,” the CEO of Antenne Pro replied.
“I’ve just fired my producer without notice because I learned that for years he’s been doctoring the bios of my guests if he found the truth too boring.”
“You mean you didn’t know that?”
“No!” She put all the indignation she could into this lie. “I’m stunned. I couldn’t check out every story, so I had to depend on him. That is—or was— his job.”
“Please tell me that it won’t turn into a bloodbath,” said Matern.
“Of course not.” Hanna leaned back in her chair. “I already have an idea for how we can turn this thing around.”
“What is it?”
“We’ll admit everything and apologize to the guests.” There was a moment’s silence.
“Retreat disguised as an advance,” Wolfgang Matern said at last. “That’s precisely why I admire you. You don’t run and hide. Let’s talk about it tomorrow over lunch, okay?”
Hanna could almost hear his smile, and a weight lifted off her heart. Sometimes her spontaneous ideas were the best.
The Airbus had not yet come to a stop when people started undoing their safety belts and getting up, ignoring the instructions to remain seated until the plane reached the gate. Bodenstein stayed in his seat. He had no desire to stand in the jammed aisle and get jostled by the other passengers. A glance at his watch assured him that he had plenty of time. The plane had landed precisely at 8:42 p.m. after a forty-five-minute flight.
Ever since this afternoon, he’d had the feeling that he was finally putting his life in order after two turbulent, chaotic years. He’d made the right decision to attend the trial of Annika Sommerfeld in Potsdam and draw a line of finality under the whole matter. He felt that a load had been lifted off his shoulders. He’d been carrying it around since last summer—no, actually from that day in November two years ago when he’d been forced to acknowledge that Cosima was cheating on him. The breakup of his marriage and the fling with Annika had thrown him for a complete loop emotionally and caused serious damage to his self-esteem. In the end, his private misery had affected his ability to concentrate on his work and led him to make mistakes that he never would have made before. Although in the past few weeks and months, he had also recognized that his marriage to Cosima had not been nearly as perfect as he’d convinced himself it was during their twenty-year relationship. Far too often he’d backed down and acted against his will for the sake of harmony, the children, and outward appearances. Now that was all in the past.
The queue in the aisle finally began to move. Bodenstein stood up, retrieved his bag from the overhead compartment, and followed his fellow passengers toward the exit.
From Gate A49, it was a real hike to the terminal exit. At one point, he followed the wrong sign, as he often did in this gigantic airport, and ended up in the departure hall. He took the escalator down to the arrivals level and stepped outside into the warm evening air. A few minutes before nine. Inka was supposed to pick him up at nine. Bodenstein crossed the taxi lane and stood in the short-term parking area. He spotted her black Land Rover in the distance and smiled in spite of himself. Whenever Cosima had promised to pick him up somewhere, she would always show up at least fifteen minutes late, making him very annoyed. Things were different with Inka.
The SUV pulled up next to him and he opened the back door, heaved his roller bag onto the seat, and then climbed in the front.
“Hi.” She was smiling. “Have a good flight?”
“Hello.” Bodenstein was smiling, too, as he fastened his seat belt. “Yes, wonderful. Thanks for picking me up.”
“No problem. Anytime.”
She put on the left-turn blinker, glanced over her shoulder, and merged back into the line of slow-moving cars.
Bodenstein hadn’t told anyone why he’d gone to Potsdam, not even Inka, although in recent months she’d become a good friend. He leaned back against the headrest. The episode with Annika Sommerfeld had undoubtedly had one positive result. He had finally begun to think about himself, which had proved to be a painful process of self-realization. He had come to understand that very seldom had he done what he really wanted to do. He’d always yielded to Cosima’s wishes and demands, because of his basic good nature, because it was easier, or maybe because he felt a sense of responsibility, but none of that mattered. The end result was that he’d turned into a boring yes-man, a henpecked husband, and with that he’d lost all his sex appeal. No wonder that Cosima, who hated routine and boredom more than anything, had fallen into an affair.
“By the way, I got the key to the house,” said Inka. “If you like, you could take another look at it tonight.”
“Oh, that’s a good idea.” Bodenstein looked at her. “But first you have to drive me home so I can pick up my car.”
“I can drive you home afterward; otherwise, it’ll be too late. They haven’t turned on the electricity yet.”
“If it’s not too much trouble.”
“No problem.” She grinned. “I’m off tonight.” “Well then, I’ll gladly take you up on that offer.”
Dr. Inka Hansen was a veterinarian and worked at an animal clinic in the Ruppertshain district of Kelkheim with two colleagues. Through her job, she had found out everything about the house. It was half of a duplex, and the builder had run out of money. For six months, construction had been stopped, and the house had gone on the market at a relatively reasonable price.
Half an hour later, they had reached the construction site and teetered their way across a plank to the front door. Inka opened it and they went inside.
“The stone floor has been laid, and all the wiring is done. But that’s it,” said Inka as she strolled through the rooms on the ground floor.
Then they went up the stairs to the second floor.
“Wow!” Bodenstein exclaimed. “The view is spectacular.” In the distance they could see the glittering lights of downtown Frankfurt to the left and the brightly illuminated airport to the right.
“And nobody can build in front of it to block the view,” Inka declared. “In the daytime, you can see all the way up the hill to Schloss Bodenstein.”
Life certainly took strange detours sometimes. He’d been fourteen years old when he fell in love with Inka Hansen, the daughter of the horse veterinarian from Ruppertshain. But he’d never worked up the courage to tell her. And so it ended in misunderstandings, which had driven him to study far away. There he had met Nicola, and then Cosima. He’d stopped thinking about Inka until they happened to meet during a murder investigation five years ago. Back then, he had still believed that his marriage to Cosima would last forever, and he probably would have lost contact with Inka if her daughter and his son hadn’t fallen in love with each other. The past year, the two had gotten married, and at the wedding he, as the father of the groom, had been seated next to her, the mother of the bride. They’d had a good conversation, then kept in touch by phone and went out to eat a few times. Over several months, a genuine friendship had developed, and the phone calls and dinners soon turned into a regular habit. Bodenstein liked being with Inka; she was easy to talk to and a good friend. Inka was a strong, self-confident woman, who placed great value on her freedom and independence.
Bodenstein was happy with his life now, except for his housing situation. He couldn’t stay in the carriage house at the Bodenstein ancestral estate forever.
In the vanishing daylight, they inspected the whole house, and Bodenstein was warming to the idea of moving to Ruppertshain so he could be closer to his youngest daughter. For the past few months, Cosima had also lived in Ruppertshain. She had rented an apartment in the Zauberberg, the former TB sanatorium, where she also had her office. After months of accusations, counteraccusations, and insults, Cosima and Oliver now got along better than ever before. They shared custody of Sophia, which was the top priority for Oliver. He would have his youngest daughter to himself every other weekend, and sometimes during the week as well, when Cosima had deadlines to meet.
“This is really ideal,” he said enthusiastically when they’d finished the tour. “Sophia could have her own room, and when she’s a little older, she can come over here alone or even ride her bike to my parents’ place.”
“I thought of that, too,” Inka replied. “Shall I put you in touch with the seller?”
“Yes, I’d appreciate that,” Bodenstein said with a nod.
Inka closed the front door and led the way across the plank toward the street. The night was hazy, and the heat of the day was still palpable between the houses. The scent of charcoal and grilled meat was in the air, and they heard voices and laughter from one of the backyards. “Just imagine,” he said, “if all goes well, we could wind up being neighbors.”
“Would you like that?” Inka asked.
As she stood next to her car, she turned around to look at him. In the light of the streetlamps, her natural blond hair shone like honey. Bodenstein admired once more her classic facial features, her high cheekbones and lovely lips. Neither the years nor the hard work as a veterinarian had diminished her beauty. He once again wondered why she’d never had a husband or a steady boyfriend.
“Sure.” He walked around the car to the passenger side and got in. “That would be wonderful. Why don’t we grab a quick pizza at Merlin’s? I’m as hungry as a bear.”
Inka got in behind the wheel.
“Okay,” she replied after a brief hesitation, and put the key in the ignition.
Excerpted from Big Bad Wolf by Nele Neuhaus. Copyright © 2014 by Nele Neuhaus.
First published in Germany 2012 under the title Bőser Wolf by List Taschenbuch, an imprint of Ullstein Buchverlage GmbH, Berlin. First published in English 2014 as Bad Wolf by Minotaur Books, an imprint of St Martin’s Press, New York. First published in the UK 2014 as Big Bad Wolf by Macmillan, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
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